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1/17/2008

Law & Jurisprudence

THE END OF PRIVACY
A research lab charts a new frontier into high-tech surveillance and a very scary place

 

Someone may be watching. Speak into your cell phone, use a computer connected to the Internet, or walk through an area monitored by video cameras attached to a data network, and be prepared to interact with a global electronic surveillance apparatus that knows whether you’re happy, horny depressed or enraged.

Government agencies on the lookout for terrorists and corporations bent on shaping the appetites of our consumer culture control the technology behind this modern-day version of the Eye of Sauron. Firewalls and other security measures on privately controlled servers currently limit the reach of this new form of surveillance, but with media systems like wireless networks and Internet service providers becoming increasingly integrated, few corners of the average American’s daily life will be hidden from the gaze of this steadily expanding electronic awareness.

Even now, as media conglomerates and information technology engineers begin charting this process of integration, “You have to assume there’s not a whole lot that’s private,” says Adam Clayton Powell III, vice provost for globalization at the University of Southern California and the former director of USC’s Integrated Media Systems Center, which produced much of the know-how for these “truly aware”
technologies.

“We’ve developed software that can read a subject’s facial expression and body position to understand his psychological state,” Powell says. “We also discovered that the intervals between a user’s keystrokes at a computer interface can reveal anger or boredom and lots of other emotions.”

Powell is a long-limbed man with an expressively elastic face and a quirky, anachronistic sense of style reminiscent of his days at CBS, where he got his start in the 1960s as a precocious electronic-media whiz helping Walter Cronkite make sense of the gadgetry behind the Gemini space program. He readily concedes that the notion of a powerful computer’s taking note of the thoughts of people in an online chat room can be a little unsettling.

“This does sound like science fiction,” Powell says, likening the potential of some of the “truly aware” technologies developed at USC to the devices that allowed the fictional Krell – the vanished master race in the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet – to interact telepathically with their machines.

Considering that many projects have received funding from a division of the same Department of Defense now at the center of the Internet surveillance controversy, which set the tone for the Bush administration’s war on terror, it’s worth noting that the Krell – whose machines dutifully carried out the violent, unconscious desires of their makers – were ultimately destroyed by their own creation.

Break down the stovepipes

Powell acknowledged that much of the work at USC’s Integrated Media Systems Center supported the Department of Defense’s now officially de-funded Information Awareness Office and its now-infamous Total Information Awareness Program, created in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. Both were ostensibly shuttered by an act of Congress under a cloud of controversy, but coaxing the genies of high technology back into their jar is never a simple proposition. The office was headed by retired Admiral John Poindexter, a key figure from the Reagan-era’s Iran-Contra scandal. In early 2002, the Bush administration enlisted Poindexter to “break down the stovepipes” that have separated the military and commercial components of the Internet for the past quarter-century.

While some members of Congress fret over quaint intrusions like wiretapping, the Department of Defense – despite the furor over TIA – deploys technologies that can instantly assemble a psychological profile of an unsuspecting person from digitized voice or surveillance-camera data or from keystrokes at a computer connected to the Internet. Powell did not shrink from the implications of this dramatic expansion in the scope of electronic information.

“Yes, it means Big Brother goes to the next stage,” he says, “but the information and technology are available to everyone, so everyone goes to the next stage.”

Everyone, that is, with a financial stake in IMSC’s research. In addition to the $32 million founding grant that the IMSC won from the National Science Foundation a decade ago, the center and its complement of about a dozen researchers have received tens of millions of dollars from corporations and other government agencies with an interest in specific areas of IMSC research.

All of the projects that support the development of sensory awareness technologies and the deep Internet architectures required to expand this awareness – including research into high-speed recording and sorting programs that can sift through vast amounts of Internet data – have been funded in whole or in part by the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, a half-century-old division of the Department of Defense, better known as DARPA.

For all its ruddy brick-and-linoleum mid-’70s innocuousness, the cramped engineering building that houses IMSC is emblematic of the power that business and military interests exert at the leading edge of American high technology. The center’s overlapping relationships with DARPA and several key corporate contractors at the Department of Defense – including Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman – has fostered a short-term, product-focused ethos that some IMSC researchers see as a threat to the traditional ideal of university-based science, which tends to value knowledge for its own sake rather its utility for producing profits or serving political ends.

“It’s painful,” says Shri Narayanan, a professor of computer science, linguistics and psychology. His DARPA-funded research has produced software capable of isolating individual voices in digital audio streams and real-time, speech-to-speech translation of Farsi into English. “They want answers now. Project cycles have changed quite a bit – they’re now on a quarterly business model, but ideally university research should support faculty and students over the longer term.”

Alexandre François, another IMSC researcher, expressed a similar lament. François has been involved in developing the software architecture for “immersipresence,” IMSC’s mind-bending signature project, in which
an “aware” computer system uses its perceptions of a user’s responses to audio and visual components of a specially designed media environment – in other words, a semi-sentient version of Star Trek’s holodeck that can be used either for civilian or military training purposes – to produce an experience indistinguishable from reality.

“Funding agencies have begun to want instant gratification,” François says. “They say, ‘If we give you 10 times the resources, can you get it next year?’ That’s not research.”

The influence of DARPA at the Integrated Media Systems Center has also nurtured an ethos that tends more toward opacity than transparency. Nichole Phillips, the executive administrative director at IMSC, repeatedly promised but never delivered a list of DARPA grant-recipients at IMSC. (Somewhat ironically, an Internet search quickly yielded the list that had been withheld.)

And IMSC researcher Cyrus Shahabi – whose work on programs that allow powerful computers to sift through Internet data at extraordinarily high processing speeds is most closely related to the Total Information Awareness controversy – initially denied any connection with DARPA, then failed to reply to requests for an interview after being e-mailed a list of his DARPA-funded projects.

None of this will come as a surprise to almost anyone familiar with the history of DARPA. Though it has used billions of dollars in public money to influence the culture of university research in the hard sciences for more than six decades, a manic sense of urgency and an aversion to fresh air and sunlight are traits with which the agency was endowed at its conception.

Beleaguered outsiders

“DARPA was born of America’s post-Sputnik Cold War hysteria,” says Ann Finkbeiner, author of The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite. “Some of the payoffs of DARPA-sponsored research” – like the stealth bomber, satellite-based global positioning systems and the Internet, which was born in the 1960s as Arpanet – “are spectacular. Others are not so spectacular. DARPA’s fatal flaw is that it tends to support scientists who feel like beleaguered outsiders.”

Finkbeiner may have inverted the factors in this equation; if the experience of IMSC’s researchers is any indication, it may be that DARPA infuses a feeling of insecurity into the research communities that seek its support.

In any case, the events of Sept. 11 exposed and amplified the patterns of this siege mentality. Four months after a handful of fanatical hijackers made good on intentions that old-fashioned intelligence-gathering methods had detected well before the day that would come to define his presidency, the Bush administration launched the Information Awareness Office and the Total Information Awareness Program through DARPA and named Poindexter as the new office’s director.

Poindexter’s tenure was brief. The New York Times first published information on the TIA plan to employ information technologies to engage in vast Internet data-mining operations in February 2002, and by November of that year a diverse array of activists and commentators – from the ACLU to conservative columnist William Safire – had denounced TIA as the precursor to an Orwellian mass surveillance system.

In January 2003, a year after the Information Awareness Office was created – and after its signature effort was renamed the Terrorism Information Awareness Program – U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., introduced legislation that eventually suspended TIA activities.

“The flap over Total Information Awareness was mostly a PR problem,” says Sharon Weinberg, editor-in-chief of Defense Technology International. “The media made too big a deal out of it because DARPA didn’t feel PR was necessary.”

Carole Grunberg, a former legislative director for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon – the privacy-rights watchdog who co-sponsored the legislation that shut down the Information Awareness Office – offered a different perspective on Poindexter’s plan to turn the Internet into a planet-wide surveillance apparatus.

“They were just going to turn people upside down and see what falls out of their pockets,” she says. “Everybody thought this was not something the U.S. should be doing and that it was probably unconstitutional.”

Another former Wyden staffer – currently an advisor on national security issues to a Democratic presidential candidate, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity – said that while the legislation enacted in 2003 stipulated that TIA activities were not to be dispersed to other agencies, information aggregation and data-mining have simply become more deeply shrouded operations within the Department of Defense.

“The overall goal of the program did not end,” the former Wyden staffer says. “A lot of it’s in the [National Security Agency], continuing in much more secret forms.”

Weinberg of Defense Technology International, who was much more sympathetic to the goals of the Information Awareness Office, agreed. “Congressional action didn’t really end TIA,” she says. “It just moved to other intelligence agencies.”

Through the grant-making initiatives of DARPA, the objectives of the Total Information Awareness Program have also continued to thrive in academic settings like the Integrated Media Systems Center.

“TIA’s going to happen,” says the former Wyden staffer. “It’s just not going to be called TIA, and it might not be the government doing it.”

Not my department

Powell isn’t troubled by what goes on in the heads of apparatchiks at the Department of Defense who fund research projects at the Integrated Media Systems Center. In response to a question about the effect of the Total Information Awareness controversy on the ethical culture of IMSC, he quoted a line from a song by Tom Lehrer, who in 1965 satirized one of the most infamous scientific minds of the Cold War: “‘Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down?/That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.”

In other words, if the military-industrial complex wants to fund research into sensory surveillance technologies as well as the sophisticated Internet architectures required to make the reach of those technologies nearly global, why should a humble university administrator turn down a government grant?

That kind of sangfroid is vexing for Lee Tien, a senior attorney for privacy issues at the Electronic Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group that works to protect privacy rights on the Internet.

“You’re trying to hit a moving target,” Tien says. “The research on speech understanding and sensory surveillance is most disturbing, but you can’t stop science. All that stuff is happening at the corporate and academic levels, and looking for patterns and making inferences serves a dual purpose, both commercial and surveillance.”

Tien says that it’s possible to ensure new information technologies aren’t used by the government for surveillance purposes, but doing so would require congressional staffs to develop very high levels of technological sophistication and expertise.

“We’ve built our notion of privacy around data itself” – that is, information expressed as numbers or words – “but with these new technologies, there’s data beyond data,” he says. “The constructs used in ordinary privacy law just don’t work.”

Thwarting complex new forms of electronic surveillance would also require a mass of political will that Tien doesn’t expect to see in the current Congress. “Even with the Democrats in charge, everything is geared toward [the presidential election in] 2008,” he says. “From congressional staffs, I haven’t heard anything about renewing inquiries.”

Meanwhile, the impulse to cloak surveillance apparatus in secrecy only deepens the odd pairing of paranoia and entitlement in the political culture that sustains it.

“Consider the position surveillance puts the viewer in,” says Chad Harris, a research fellow in the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego, and a contributor to the journal Surveillance and Society. “If you’re the viewer, you’re totally dominant over what you’re looking at, like an omniscient being.”

That conclusion may sound overly dramatic. Well, it is and it isn’t. Recall Powell’s remark that, when you’re interacting with a networked electronic environment, “You have to assume there’s not a whole lot that’s private.”

These days, the sweep of that statement includes not just your Social Security number and the content of your e-mail but also the pattern of your thoughts and feelings – a state of affairs that makes the prospect of a government obsessed with ferreting out “thought-crime” not nearly difficult enough to imagine.

This disturbing fact of modern life might cause you to shake your fist at the Bush administration, but you’ve already looked too far to find the culprit. Like the president who has given us such eerily Orwellian-sounding institutions as the War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security, a ubiquitous electronic surveillance apparatus intent on our inmost thoughts is the creature – not the creator – of our collective American neurosis. The best way to alter the course of our surveillance society is for everyone to get wise to the things that a quantum mainframe already knows: that we Americans are really scared, really angry and very easily distracted.

A version of this story appeared originally in Los Angeles CityBeat.

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